Public Confessions of Private Affairs

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Addicted to pornography and masturbation, a man confesses to his wife, quitting his addictions cold turkey. But when he caves into his cravings again, he chooses to tell another source altogether. He sits down at his personal computer, logs on to dailyconfessions.com — the oldest of several online confessional web sites — types his transgressions, and sends them into cyberspace, anonymously. The confessor never knows who is privy to his most private affairs, nor does anyone who reads the confession personally know the confessor.

Deriving pleasure from watching other people in pain is nothing new. In ancient Greece, audiences clamored to watch tragedies unfold on stage, a favorite pastime that was said to have a cathartic, or emotionally cleansing, effect. Today, the obsession with peering into the pain in other people’s lives continues, with some twists. Instead of sitting in an amphitheater, audiences now can watch personal tragedies unfold from the comfort of their living room — on the Internet or TV. And today, real people — not actors — are confessing their deep, dark secrets to anyone who wants to listen.

Along with this emerging trend of public confessions come a few questions. For starters, what do public confessions of private affairs say about people willing to bare their souls to strangers? Just as curious, why do voyeuristic-like audiences so eagerly imbibe this normally confidential information from strangers? At WebMD, we turned to the experts to learn more about this popular phenomenon: what fuels confessors and audiences to engage in this trend and what sort of impact, both immediate and long-lasting, does it have.

The Rise of Public Confessions

Temple University professor and former president of the American Psychological Association Frank Farley, PhD, points to daytime TV figures such as Jerry Springer as largely responsible for the emergence of TV confessions. In what he refers to as “the Jerry Springer effect,” Farley notes the television personality’s mastery at getting people to reveal their inner lives to audiences. Reveling in their 15 minutes of fame, however twisted, everyday people became motivated to share their personal sagas before millions of viewers. In turn, audiences tuned in to the show to see what bizarre scenario would unfold next.

Adding fuel to the public confession phenomenon is the proliferation of psychological terminology by the public. Once reserved for mental health professionals, terms like ADHD and obsessive compulsive are now commonplace. “People can reveal themselves more effectively because they have a language to use,” Farley tells WebMD.

A Closer Look at the Confessors

So who is airing their dirty laundry on public TV, or typing startling confessions on their personal computers?

Anyone with access to a computer and a guilty conscience, it seems. Greg Fox, creator and webmaster of Dailyconfession.com, says his web site gets between 250 and 300 new confessions daily. Revelations run the gamut, from confessions of petty shoplifting to obsessive thoughts of murder.

“People still want to be socially accepted, even with their warts, so they’re willing to spill their personal beans,” says psychotherapist Gilda Carle, PhD, an educator and relationship expert whose advice has penetrated TV and print media in recent years.

Some say the Internet confessor may be looking for an easy way out. “It’s easier to do it [confess] in an anonymous world: you don’t have to confront someone directly,” Farley says.

Others, it seems, are just looking for some extra cash, potentially at a great cost. The Moment of Truth, a new reality TV show on Fox, offers up to $500,000 to contestants willing to bare their most private truths, typically in front of their closest friends or family members. The program proves that some people are willing to risk damage or complete ruin of friendships, and even marriage, for money. What’s more, the success of the show tells us there are plenty of viewers eager to watch strangers’ sad sagas unfold.

Confessions = Catharsis?

Do public confessions equal catharsis? That depends on whom you ask.

Though he can’t speak for all confessors, Fox notes that he’s gotten more than a handful of emails from people who have confessed to suicidal feelings on his web site and, afterward, report a new interest in living.

Others remain unconvinced of the benefits of public or anonymous confessions. “I would say it’s a weak substitute, and it may delay the real issue at hand,” Farley tells WebMD.

Still others are less skeptical. “We know that confession in and of itself can have beneficial effects,” says Jeffrey Janata, PhD, a physician at University Hospitals and associate professor of psychiatry and director of the behavioral medicine program at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “The actual degree of heartfelt expression is key.”

Simply writing our deepest emotions may make for a healing experience. James Pennebaker, PhD, a professor of at Southern Methodist University, has long studied the healing effects of unloading on paper an emotional upheaval. He’s conducted several studies on the topic; the highlights have found their way into academic journals and, more recently, into his book Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval.

The upshot of Pennebaker’s work is this: Writing about painful experiences can improve health by enhancing immune response, reducing recovery times, and promoting overall well-being. In a landmark study led by Pennebaker, participants who wrote about personal and painful topics actually experienced an increase in the levels of white blood cells (key to immune function) circulating in their bodies. Conversely, the control group who suppressed their emotions had a significant drop in immune-fighting cells.

The Role of the Audience

Are those on the receiving end of confessions simply modern-day voyeurs, or is there something more to tuning in to public confessions?

Odd as it may sound, some say it feels good to know that other people feel bad. “We watch because we feel vicarious pleasure and power over people whose secrets we know. We can point and say ‘that poor sap’ without revealing our own guilt and shameful feelings,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of several self-help books.

Fox concurs. “People have said things to me like, ‘I came to your web site and realized my life isn’t all that bad,” he says.

The reality show The Moment of Truth bears this out. Recently, 10 million viewers tuned in to watch a young man confess, in front of his girlfriend and mother no less, to having had with more than 100 people.

It’s possible to put a positive spin on our voyeuristic tendencies.

Recently, MTV ran a public health campaign on depression. In it, they relied on the public revelation of rock musician Pete Wenz’s battle with depression to raise public awareness of this mental health problem that’s often battled in private. Not only did Wenz confess to dealing with depression, but he also urged people suffering from depression to get professional help. As this example illustrates, the media can and have used public confessions in a positive way.

While TV and the Internet serve simply as the tools used in modern-day public confessions, the larger question of why they’ve become a conduit of choice for confessors remains. “Whether that’s because people don’t have real communities, or the electronic versions are easier and require less work, is hard to know,” Janata says.